So, You Want to Indie Publish…

Most of you know that I belong to a local group of authors. We have a wide range of experience—from newbies to old-guard like me—and we get our books to market in a number of ways. Most of the members of our group have some experience with publishers, either digital-first presses, small presses or the big kahuna publishers in New York, but many of us also indie-publish our books. We have a few who have only ever indie-published their books, and still more who want to jump into that particular pond. I’ve been asked for a pre-release checklist from two different people this week, so thought I’d post it here.

When an author indie-publishes his or her work, that author becomes the publisher as well as the author of the work. That adds a lot of jobs to the To Do list. The interesting thing is that there are a number of ways to approach the publication of your work, so there’s no One Right Way to do it. You’ll have some decisions to make, too.

There are many steps to publishing a book independently. You can do all of them yourself, assign all of it to a service firm for a fee, or do some and delegate some. The choice is all yours.

• Prepare your cover
Your cover is the one thing that every potential customer will see. Spend some time on it (and some money.) Many people make their own covers, which works out better if they have a graphic talent and understand the licensing agreements for stock photographs. If you hire a designer to create your cover, research your genre thoroughly beforehand and provide some samples to him/her or what you like and what you’re looking for. Hire a designer who already designs covers for your sub-genre. I often have mine done several at a time, because I write in series and it’s the best way (IMO) to keep the look consistent.

No matter how you create your cover, be sure to size it down to a thumbnail (which is how most people will see it) and ensure it still conveys your message. Each portal has restrictions and specifications on cover size. Many designers are on board with this and will deliver a number of different sizes. Upload the highest resolution possible at each portal so the cover looks its best.

——>>>Ensure that you have a professional looking cover that is easily read in thumbnail (both your name and the title) and is clearly evocative of your sub-genre.

Decide upon your publishing identity
How are you going to structure your publishing company? This is the foundation of your business and will be a lot of trouble to change later. It’s better to decide upfront. Your business name, your financial data and your tax information all need to match.

Will you publish as a sole proprietor? If so, your personal tax identification will suffice. (Until recently, non-US residents needed a US tax number to collect revenue from US companies—which includes most of the book portals—without having tax withheld, but that’s no longer true. Yay for tax treaties!)

A couple of caveats here—your tax identity will be displayed on the book product page on some portals (iBooks)—so if you’re writing under a pseudonym, you might want to think about that. You might want to get a post office box to protect the privacy of your home address, and a “public” email account. Remember that domain name registrations are publicly searchable (unless you pay for private registration) and that ISBN# registries and copyright registries are also publicly searchable resources. If any of these items pose a concern, you may wish to incorporate or file a DBA to protect your personal information. There are a LOT of decisions to make in this arena.

——>>>Choose how to structure your business, and obtain the necessary documentation. Your tax identification must MATCH the legal name of your business.

Where do you want to sell your books?
You can make your books exclusive to one digital portal, or “go wide” and make them available in as many places as possible. Often, portals offer merchandizing and promotional opportunities for exclusive titles. Whether that’s worth the exchange of losing wide distribution is a personal choice and can be a strategic one.

An associated question—do you intend to publish directly to your portals of choice, or will you use an aggregator? Most authors publish directly to Amazon for Kindle. You can publish directly to iBooks and Kobo or go through an aggregator like Draft2Digital or Smashwords. I believe that GooglePlay is currently closed to new accounts. Barnes and Noble only allows US and UK writers to publish directly to Nook. If those last two are among your target markets, you’ll have to reach them through an aggregator. Sometimes aggregators can offer merchandizing and promotion opportunities to authors and books that are distributed to all portals through them. If you are writing romance, you might also want to publish directly to All Romance eBooks.

There are a lot of other portals and your book might end up in some of them without knowing how it got there. Kobo distributes to WH Smith in the UK, for example, and to FNAC in France. As aggregators, Smashwords and Draft2Digital allow you to opt in or out of a list of portals. Note that Smashwords is also a portal in its own right, while D2D does not sell to individual consumers.

One thing to keep in mind if you plan to start one way (perhaps through an aggregator) and later switch (to direct distribution) is that at some portals (iBooks) reviews and rankings will not transfer between editions of a book. You lose them all when you change distribution channels. Another thing to keep in mind—some portals don’t allow you to set a book to free when you publish directly. B&N is one of them. So, any book you intend to make free should go to B&N from an aggregator. Amazon doesn’t allow non-exclusive books to be set to free, either, but must be encouraged to price match the free at another portal.

——>>>You will need to create accounts at each portal where you intend to upload content, and provide your payment and tax information to each one. Some portals will allow you to publish works under multiple author brands via a single account, while others require each author brand to have its own account.

Do you intend to use ISBN#’s?
The ISBN is a tracking number for all book products. In traditional publishing, a unique ISBN# is assigned to every edition of the book. Most digital portals offer the option of providing your own ISBN# or using a portal-specific tracking code as an alternate.

Be aware that the portal-specific tracking code often cannot be used for distribution to other territories. Kobo, for example, offers such a code, but WH Smith in the UK will not accept digital books from them without an ISBN#.

——>>>If you choose to use ISBN#’s, you will need one for the digital book and one for the print/POD edition (if there is one). You can get ISBN#’s from some portals (Smashwords, Createspace) or buy them at Bowker. Canadians can get ISBN#’s free from CISS. You must register for an account, however you intend to get your ISBN#’s and acquire them.

• Compile your metadata.
Metadata is the information that travels with the digital book and is used by search engines to find that book. Metadata includes: the title, the author name(s), the date of publication, the series, the book’s number in the series, the ISBN#, the BISAC subject codes, the search keywords, and maybe more. It might include the cover, the author bio, and the book description. If you are producing a simultaneous print edition (or POD) some portals allow you to include the ISBN for the print edition in the metadata for the digital book. Different portals allow more information or less.

——>>>Collect your metadata and make it consistent with your other titles. It should also be consistent for each book across all platforms. I compile a lot of the metadata on the book’s product page on my website, then I can cut and paste from there into the publishing interface. Be sure to investigate key words in your genre and sub-genre.

• Do you intend to earn affiliate income?
An affiliate account allows you to earn a commission for sending shoppers to a digital portal. Amazon offers affiliate programs through their US, UK, CA and DE stores—the accounting is done separately—and iBooks’ affiliate program gathers commissions from all territories under a single umbrella. Rakuten offers an affiliate program for Kobo and I believe there’s also a program for B&N. When you publish a book on Smashwords, the product page that you can see when logged in includes your affiliate link.

If you are an affiliate, you add a bit of code onto the hotlink that takes the buyer to a product page on the portal’s website. Whatever that consumer buys after following your link in, is eligible for a commission payment. Each portal’s program has different rules and restrictions, so read the agreements before you click.

——>>>To become an affiliate at any portal, you must apply for an affiliate account. Usually, you must provide your website’s traffic numbers for consideration. Once approved, you will be given a code to add to your hotlinks. Some people choose to use a link shortening service like bitly when using affiliate codes. iBooks allows affiliates to also add a campaign code, so that various promotion methods can be tracked for their effectiveness.

• Do you intend to create portal-specific versions of your digital book?
People like to buy a book with a single click. It makes sense then to have buy links in your digital books for your other digital books, and (if you are an affiliate) to include affiliate codes in your links. The trick, of course, is that each portal wants only links to their own portal in the digital books distributed there—or “generic” links that go back to the author’s website.

——>>>Make a choice and a list of your formats and editions. You can create an EPUB that can be uploaded to every portal with links back to your own website; you can create portal-specific versions (with or without affiliate links) for every portal; or you can do something in between. Remember that if you’re going through an aggregator, you can’t have portal specific links, because the same file goes to all the vendors you select through that distributor. Remember that if you’re using Smashwords as your aggregator, they will take an EPUB for distribution but will need a DOC to generate other formats for direct sale from their site.

• Prepare your book
The two prevalent formats for digital books are MOBI (used by the Kindle family) and EPUB (used by other e-readers). Most of the portals offer a conversion engine, to convert your DOC or TXT file to the format that they distribute. This may or may not create an attractive digital book. You can also use an application like Vellum to format your own books, or you can hire a formatter to do it for you.

Here’s an interesting detail and option: you can upload a book file in DOC or TXT to Smashwords and their engine (the “Meatgrinder”) will create an EPUB for distribution. This EPUB, however, is proprietary – although you can download it to check it, you can’t legally upload it at any other portal. In contrast, you can upload a DOC file to Kobo (when you’re logged into Kobo Writing Life) and let their engine create an EPUB. You can edit this EPUB in KWL, and also download it to use it wherever you want. That’s another way to get an EPUB book.

When your book is formatted, you will have the option of adding other content to the book, like an excerpt from the next book in the series, the cover of this book or other books, an author bio, a newsletter signup link, a list of your published books and/or buy links for your other books. If you have the book prepared by a formatter, he or she may include the metadata in the book file. (You can do this yourself if you know how.) Draft 2 Digital has a new utility which will add the same end matter, book list etc., to all of your books and update it automatically.

——>>>Prepare all front matter, end matter, links, cover images and metadata for the book before sending it to a formatter or formatting it yourself. Ensure that your digital book includes a clickable Table of Contents (a TOC). Increasingly, Amazon prefers an NCX so the TOC can be displayed in the sidebar of a Kindle.

• Are you going to offer a pre-order?
A pre-order is convenient because you know exactly when your book is going to be available for sale. That can allow you to coordinate some promotion around the release date, and also to sell some copies of the book in advance of publication. Now, most of the portals offer a pre-order utility. Some are asset-less (that means you can make a book available for pre-order without a final book file) and some require a draft file. There are hazards in uploading a draft file, as periodically, one portal or another will deliver the draft file to customers instead of the final file. Those portals that accept draft files require that the final file be delivered by a specific date—Amazon, for example requires the final book file ten days before publication. There are many thoughts on the merit of pre-order, its pros and cons, so do some research and decide—or try it. YMMV after all.

Remember that there is some apparent skew as to the actual date of delivery of the book to consumers. The portals begin to ship out units at 12:01AM Greenwich time, so it appears to us as if they’ve shipped the night before. Depending on how many pre-orders you have, the deliveries will be scattered over that 24 hours period, AND some will disappear completely. Those are the people who pre-ordered the book, but whose payment information couldn’t be processed on the day of the transaction.

There are many pricing and promotion strategies for pre-order, so do some research before you choose your price and your on sale date.

——>>>If you intend to offer a pre-order, make the pre-order available at least two weeks in advance of the publication date.

• Upload Your Book to the Various Portals
This isn’t complicated but it’s time consuming. Log into each portal in succession and follow the steps to publish your book there. They all take the same information in a slightly different way. As the book “goes live”, add the buy links to your website, including your affiliate codes if you’re using them.

• Nits to Pick
Here are a couple of simple things that need to be done separately, after the book is published:
– when you publish a book on Amazon, you need to claim your book through Author Central so that it appears on your author page. Log into your Author Central account after the book is available for sale, search for it and add it to your book list. It may take several days to appear on your author page.
Check your series. All of the portals have started to add series information to their book product pages. This is comparatively new and not always automatic. Be sure you use exactly the same series title for each book in any given series. It has to be exact, because bots don’t see “The XYZ Series” as being the same as “XYZ Series”. At some portals, you must request that a series be created (iBooks) and at others, you have to request to have a book added to an existing series (Amazon). Some portals will provide a series page link: others won’t. If you write in series, double-check this.
Add your new book to Goodreads. To do this, you must be a Goodreads author under the same name as appears on the book. (Each pseudonym needs its own GR log-in.) Readers can be very helpful in adding this information for authors, but I find that adding it early myself ensures that it’s right.
List your book on your BookBub profile. To do this, you must first create a log-in at Bookbub and claim your profile (you might have one even if you’ve never run a BB ad.) Once you’ve been approved to claim your profile, you can add to the booklist that is automatically generated. You should also add new books to that list as soon as they’re published on all portals, because BB will send a message to your followers about your new release.
Register your copyright. A lot of indie authors don’t bother with this, but I think the registration is well worth the $35 fee. Register your copyright on the on sale date at the registration office of the nation of first publication. Because my edition goes on sale first in the US, I register mine at the US Library of Congress.

Phew! There’s a good start to an indie publishing checklist. Of course, I didn’t talk about having your book edited and polished, or about promotion, but just focused on the nuts and bolts. You can also think about publishing a print edition of your book or not, about producing an audio edition of your book or not, about exploiting other subrights to your book – like foreign translation – or not. When you’re the publisher, all of those decisions are yours to make.

Here’s the Tip Jar. If you found this post useful, please follow the buy links below to shop at your favorite portal, and make my day. Buy one of my books. Buy someone else’s books. Buy some new shoes if you’re on Amazon – but put a little something in my affiliate accounts as a sign of appreciation. 🙂 I thank you in advance!

The Crusader's Kiss, #3 in the Champions of St Euphemia series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix

His dream of becoming a knight achieved, Bartholomew heads home to avenge his parents—only to find himself hunted and in need of the assistance of a most unlikely and unpredictable ally. Anna seeks justice with a disregard for the law that shocks Bartholomew, but the bold maiden’s tactics are as effective as her kisses are seductive. Does she truly wish to aid him in regaining his legacy, or is she using him as a pawn in some scheme of her own?
Buy from
Buy from Amazon Canada Buy from Amazon Germany Buy from Amazon UK Buy at iBooks

Five More Changes for Better SEO

Last week, I shared some comparatively easy tweaks for authors to make to a website to improve its SEO. The list resulted from my attending a workshop on SEO and Analytics taught by Liz Gray. Today, we’ll dig a little deeper and review some questions that might require a little more thought to answer. You really could spend months on this, and we all need to write, too. The good thing is that you can make changes incrementally, and take revisions on in gradual steps.

6. Are You Showing Search Engines What You Think You Are?
This point made me smile. It’s similar to writing a book—the scene can be so vivid in your mind as you’re writing, then an editor or beta reader “sees” something different. We don’t always say what we mean, with words, or with websites.

Since search engine spiders review the text and walk the links of your website, my big take-away from this part of the presentation was the hazard of burying important information in a graphic. You and I, for example, look at my header here on the site and see the slogan “Romance with a Touch of Magic”. That string of text, however, doesn’t exist anywhere in the copy or code of my site. Nowhere. Which means it isn’t returned to any search engine, and won’t come up in any results. If that slogan was important to me or my branding, I’d have to have a look at changing it. As it is, the header is being redesigned this spring and that slogan is on its way out, since I’m writing fewer books with paranormal elements. If there’s a new slogan, I’ll need to implement it differently on the site. I have another example, but we’ll get to that further on, with its solution.

7. Speak Like Your Customers
I mentioned this last week. Keywords exist in your niche already, so don’t invent new ones. Use the ones that search engines use, and use the ones that your readers use. This means using these words in the visible copy on the site, and in the more hidden data, like alternate text for images.

Here’s an example from my site and my store. I changed this:

Free Downloads and Swag available at Deborah's online store.

to this:

Free Reads

Because one of the search terms that brings readers to my website is “free read” or “read free”. Simple, really, but it makes sense.

8. Build Your Authority
Liz described how search engines like to provide answers to people, and that they skew preference to sites that provide answers. How they manage this is less important to this discussion than the notion itself. This is a trend I’ve noticed over the past few years. WordPress provides a list of search terms that brought people to the website on the dashboard, and I’ve seen that questions are increasingly common – and that they’re getting longer. That might be because the internet has so much data – instead of typing “Deborah Cooke author” into a search engine, I’ve seen “reading order of Dragonfire novels” and even longer questions bring readers to my site.

We as writers are the best authority on at least one subject – our own books. Let’s look at that search query “reading order Dragonfire novels”. To my great relief, the first result returned by Google on that query is my Dragonfire page here on the site. I’m glad to be considered the authority on the reading order of my own books! But I thought I’d augment that a bit. I *could* have added the graphic from the back of the Firestorm Forever postcard or made a similar banner, but that would have been burying the information in an image. Here’s that postcard:

Dragonfire by Deborah Cooke

Again, you and I can see the order of the books there, but a search engine spider is only going to get the name of the jpeg and alt text, which won’t help at all.

Here’s what I did instead. First, I added a bit of text to the Dragonfire page – the sentence in bold is new:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 8.30.10 AM Secondly, instead of just showing the covers in order on the Dragonfire page, I added the title of each and a number. That’s hotlinked to the detail page for that book, just as the cover is.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 8.37.44 AM

Finally, I added some FAQ pages to my site, and put the link to them on that menu bar. Here’s the first question on the Dragonfire FAQ page:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 8.31.58 AM

It’s going to take some time for this to populate search engines, as it needs to gather some hits and be walked by the spiders.

My new FAQ pages are a work-in-progress. Each time a new question pops up on the dashboard, I add it to the FAQ.

9. Above the Fold
When a visitor arrives at your website, what do they see without scrolling? That’s called “above the fold” and it should be what’s most important about your site. Liz noted that the prime real estate on any site is above the fold on the index page. This is one of those things that makes perfect sense, once you think about it.

It’s also tricky because what they’ll see will also depend on the device they use. On my laptop, my site looks like this above the fold:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 8.40.22 AM

(The little tool thingy at the bottom right is a WordPress gadget, because I was logged into the site when I took the screenshot.)

On my phone, it looks more like this:
Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 8.42.44 AMOne of the issues that my site shares with many other author sites is the volume of information. The more books an author has published, the more data there will be on his or her website. In the romance genre, readers love supplementary materials, like family trees and character interviews. I don’t even have that many of those on my site, but it has over 140 pages. (I could easily add another 70 or so by putting the excerpts on their own pages, which I might do.) So, I like that the menu bar appears above the fold on either phone or laptop, as that gives the reader a way to navigate around the site. I had put a lot of stuff in the sidebar, which gets buried when the visitor is using a phone (as we discussed last week) so I think I need to create some more menu tabs. I also have to remember to have my current book in the top slot on the right menu bar, so it appears above the fold on laptops and larger devices. Should I add a “Just Released” tab to the menu bar? Maybe.

I’m also thinking about how to simplify the design of my site in future. I think that the core site needs to be a full reference and will remain as a kind of hub, but have bought more domain names for individual series. If and when I republish Dragonfire, for example, it will have its own website, which will allow me to focus on just those books on that site. That will simplify the layout of that site.

10. What Do You Want A Visitor to Do?
It also makes perfect sense to use your best real estate to promote your most important goal. What do you want visitors to do? Is the way to do that in above the fold on the index page?

This requires some rethinking for me. I don’t have a static index page, so the most recent blog post appears below my site’s header. Should I make the About Deborah page into a static landing page, so all the social media links are visible? That would be the right answer if I wanted to encourage people to follow me on social media. Should I make the page for my current release into a static landing page, and update the landing page as necessary? If I want to encourage visitors to buy my books (or at least my latest one) that might be the best choice. Or does it make sense to leave the blog as the landing page, so the site looks renewed every day and the blog posts have greater visibility. I have to think about this and will probably play around with the various options in the next few months.

On the individual book pages, the cover shows above the fold, and the cover copy (or part of it, if on mobile) but the buy links are below the fold. I’m going to put the buy links at the top of each book page as well as at the bottom after the excerpt.

As you can see, it’s easy to end up with a big To Do list when you start to think more about the design of your website and what it encourages visitors to do. Thanks very much to Liz Gray for a very informative and interesting workshop. I have a lot of fiddling to do, and hope that this review is helpful to some of you as well.

Five Tweaks to Better SEO

I wish the title on this post didn’t sound so click-baity, but I can’t think of another way to phrase it that doesn’t. At least it communicates what this Wild West Thursday post is about.

Let’s start with a disclaimer. I’m not an expert on SEO (Search Engine Optimization), not by any stretch of the imagination. I did, however, attend a workshop last week with an expert, Liz Gray, and learned a lot from her. She added to the bits and ends I’ve learned over the years and I ended up with one of my favorite things—an action plan. When I talked to my local writers’ group, they didn’t know all these things either, so it seemed a good idea to share.

SEO isn’t improved by one thing. It’s a result of a lot of little variables coming together, which means that there are a lot of small changes authors can make to improve the SEO of their websites. Here are five to get you going. I’m hoping you’ve already done some of them (like #1.)

1. Use a responsive design.
A responsive design means that the website changes width based on the device the viewer is using. As of last year, Google prefers sites with responsive designs, since such a high percentage of searches are done on mobile devices.

Liz warned that just because you use a responsive design, the display for mobile users might not be what you want it to be. On the break, I had a peek, only to discover that she was right about my site.

Here it is on my laptop – this is how I look at it all the time:
Deborah Cooke's website at full widthI’ve made sure that the tabs all fit on one line, and that the subscription to my newsletter is very visible. All good, but look what happens when I make it narrower (Rather than grabbing an image from my cellphone and moving it over here, I’ll just fake it by changing the size of the window on my browser):
Deborah Cooke's website in narrower viewThe banner resized, which is great, the search utility is accessible, which is also good. The tabs stacked up, which I don’t like so much, and—oops—the newsletter subscription button has disappeared from view.

What’s happening is that this particular WP theme resizes by posting the left column (with the blog content) first, then running the right column beneath it. Waaaaaaaaaay down there, after five blog posts, is the newsletter subscription button, but who’s going to scroll that far?

Here’s what I did instead:
Deborah Cooke's website, revisedI created a tab to subscribe to the newsletter. Ultimately, I need a better solution, but for now, this addresses the issue.

There’s another goofy thing here, which I’ll have to unravel. Although I’m using a template with a responsive design, my site doesn’t have the “Mobile Friendly” tag in the Google search results. The goofy thing is that the Dragonfire page on my site DOES have the “Mobile Friendly” tag, even though it’s using the same template of the same design as the index page. I’ve got no clue why that is.

As for the tabs, author Cheri Lasota suggested that I try WP Touch, so checking out that plug-in is on my To Do list. There’s a deeper issue here, which is that I really really like websites like Cheri’s, and have a feeling there’s a bit of redesign in my near future.

One of the things I do like is how easy it is to read the excerpts on my phone. The cover on each excerpt comes up nice and clear, too. The buy links are weird – they’re centered over top of each other instead of in a line – but I can live with that until I have time to dig in and find a better solution.

2. Improve the description of your site.
When I searched on “Deborah Cooke author” in Google, my site came up in the top slot (yay!) and here’s the display today:
Deborah Cooke's website on Google SERPThis is good, but there’s room for improvement. The description of my site comes from the title information in the HTML—on a WordPress site, it evidently comes from the description of the site that I crafted when it was set up. (I recognize the text.) Mine is too long and gets cropped, so I revised it. On WordPress, you’ll find this field under GeneralSettings – it’s called the Tagline. The display looks like this:
General Settings on Deborah Cooke's website on WordPressI also could see that Google was getting the descriptions of the various pages on my site from the first sentence on the respective page, so revised them for the sake of improved clarity.

When I searched for “Claire Delacroix books”, I got this—again in the top slot (yay!):
Claire Delacroix on Google SERPThis is a bit tricky, as I’ve combined my websites over the past few years. Claire’s url ( now points to my one and only site ( This description for Delacroix needed a tweak. The first part was coming from this page, so I revised the copy there. The second part is coming from the site description. I’m going to investigate more to find out if there are other ways to improve this, but for now, I’ve made it better.

3. Provide better data on your images.
I learned this one years ago in a workshop taught by David Wind at a Novelists Inc conference. Search engine results are compiled by “spiders”, which walk the HTML code of websites. They can’t see images: they only read the text – either the copy or the code. So, while you and I can read the text on a cover image (for example) the spiders can’t. If your cover images are called “cover.jpg”, that’s not going to get you much.

There are three easy ways to have your cover images (well, all images, really, but as authors we tend to focus on covers on our sites) make a better contribution to your site’s SEO.
a. Give the image file a descriptive title.
b. Use the Alternate Text field for the image.
c. Use keywords in both.

Here’s the attachment detail page on the dashboard of my website, which is a WordPress site. It’s the detail for the cover of my medieval romance, The Crusader’s Bride.

adding metadata to an image

a. Note on the top right that the file name contains both my author name and the book title:
(This is the image sized to 200 pixels wide, which is what that means.)

b. Note that the Alternate Text field has been filled in. You can’t see it all on this screen, but the text there is:
“The Crusader’s Bride, a medieval romance and the first book in the Champions of Saint Euphemia series by Claire Delacroix.”

c. I’ve used the keyword “medieval romance” in the description, as well as the book title, series title and author name. I could also add “NYT bestselling author” and maybe should go back and do that. (We could debate the number of readers who search on that term.) Liz noted that it was important to use the keywords that your audience will use. I know that readers say they read (for example) “medieval romance” or “historical romance”, and search by author and title. There might be good additions to this.

This alternate text will be displayed if a viewer decides not to view the images, but it will also be picked up by the spiders—because it’s text—AND it will travel with the image. More about that in #5.

4. Claim your Google Page.
As Liz noted, one of the concerns of a search engine is the validity of any given site. What authority does the site have? And one of the ways to contribute to the authority of your website is to claim your Google Business Page and include your website url there. I don’t use my Google profile a lot as social media, but it makes perfect sense that Google will use it as a reference. Claiming your Google Page takes several steps in order to verify the page.
Look here for more information.

Once again, WordPress makes this very easy. They have tutorials on this, and your hosting service probably does as well. My Google Page isn’t pretty yet, but it’s mine, all mine. 🙂

5. Make it easy for users to engage with the site via social media.
Liz made this point and it really hit home. Romance readers LOVE Pinterest. Love, love LOVE. They love pinning covers—and other images—so why not make it easy for them to share your content? While you’re in verification mode with your Google Page, you can also verify your website with Pinterest. (You might have to upgrade to a business account at Pinterest. I’m not sure, as I’d done that a while ago.) They have instructions on their site on how to do this.

On WordPress, once you’ve verified with any social media platform, the share buttons (presto!) appear at the bottom of your pages and posts. I love magic stuff like this.

Share Buttons on Deborah Cooke's blog postAs a bonus on WP, once you verify with Pinterest, you get the Pinterest hover button on your images. I can’t take a screen picture of it, but go ahead and slide your cursor over any of the images here. How slick is that? (If you have a different web host, you’ll have to check their tutorials. You might have to write some html code to make this happen, but it’s cool and it’s worth it.)

This ability to share potentially improves your SEO by spreading the joy of your cover images around the internet. Even better, if you’ve followed David’s advice and added alternate text to your images, look what happens when they’re pinned:
The Crusaders' Bride cover pinned from Deborah Cooke's websiteThat description traveled with the image. It’s true that a user can over-ride that description with his/her own (ideally something like “OMG I need to read this!”) but the “pinned from” data can’t be edited. Your website url is stuck to the image for good, and that’s an excellent thing.

These five suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg, but they’re an easy way to start to improve the SEO of your website. Even better, you don’t have to do them all at once. Some of them—like the full description on images—become a habit. Next week, I’ll talk about some more complicated issues that Liz mentioned. Again, they’re things that can be altered incrementally, but they involve a little more consideration.

So, now, tell me—if you’re a writer, what’s the best thing you’ve done to improve your website’s SEO?

Or if you’re a reader, what keywords do you use when you search for new authors?

At the Store

I’ve decided to scale back my online store and ultimately dismantle it. It was an experiment and a learning experience, and one which I began almost a year ago. It’s time to look at the data and make conclusions, then apply them.

What did I learn?

1. My readers don’t tend to buy digital content directly from me.
This might be because readers prefer to shop at a specific retailer, in order to have a record of what they’ve bought before. It might be because they don’t know how to sideload content onto their e-reader. (The number of times many people download individual free samples hints at this.) It might be because my store doesn’t have one-click buying, or a wishlist, or reviews, or who knows what other features.

I’ve also heard that readers think buying directly from the author should save them money—unfortunately, that’s not possible to do, because several online retailers require that the list price for any product has to be the same as at all other retailers or lower. That means my store can’t undercut my partners’ prices.

2. My readers like to download free content from me.
The store has proven to be a good mechanism for distributing samples of upcoming books, for example, and I could see that it might be good for bonus content. OTOH, there might be better options, if taking money isn’t an issue.

3. Free content and larger samples lead to sales.
The conversion rate (that’s what we call it when a reader buys a book after reading, for example, a sample for free, or buys book #2 after getting book #1 for free) is really good on those longer excerpts from upcoming books. OTOH, both iBooks and Kobo offer the option of my uploading those samples on their site, so readers don’t have to leave their online store to get them. I’ve done that for The Crusader’s Heart, and will continue to do so for upcoming titles. I suspect other retailers will add the same functionality, which means readers can stay in the shopping environment which they prefer.

4. Sales taxes are a pain.
Actually, they’re a nightmare. The sales tax on digital books, which changes by territory, is a huge complication and one I can live without. I’m actually very happy that so few readers bought books directly from me because it saved me a lot of bookkeeping. 🙂

5. My readers like to buy signed print copies of my books directly from me.
This is good to know – plus it’s fun to pack parcels for readers. (My assistant likes to hide temporary tattoos and signed bookplates between the book pages, for example, so they can be discovered while reading.) The sales volumes aren’t epic, though—bookplates work pretty much as well, and are cheaper to mail. Also I’m doing more reader events, so readers will be able to buy directly from me, in person. (That has to be even better, right?)

6. Postage rates are another nightmare.
Without a postage calculator integrated into the site – which looks up the rate, based on weight, origin and destination – there’s been a ton of fiddling to do. The site lets you set a flat rate for domestic or international postage, but that rate isn’t flat at the post office, even with the same weight and size of package. It’s also set per order, so the site adds the same amount whether the customer buys a single mass market paperback or five print-on-demand trade paperbacks (which weigh a lot.) My assistant looks ready to bite me when we get a print order because we either have to make a refund or ask the reader for another payment. I won’t be doing this anymore.

Instead, whenever I’m going to appear at a booksigning, there will be a pre-order form for my books so you can order, pay in advance (or know how much cash to bring), and just pick them up at the show. There will be special pricing, too, because that’s clearly popular. Readers can also request signed bookplates from me to put in books purchased elsewhere. These are always free.

For now, the store is there, but there’s pretty much only free content available for download, mostly samples of upcoming titles and family trees. I’m looking for another way to deliver that content to you and might just put it on the site here. That’s where the family trees resided in the first place and it worked well enough. The store costs me a monthly fee (because I use a premium theme) and another to accept Paypal but I don’t need either for free content. It’ll be shut down, probably by the end of October, so you can get your sample chapters of The Crusader’s Heart before it’s published. There are, of course, storefront options that have postage and sales tax calculators, but they’re more expensive applications. I wanted to see how my readers shopped before making the investment. Given these results, I won’t be making that commitment.

Thanks for experimenting with me!

Do you have any strong feelings, good or bad, about buying books directly from authors, about author bookstores in general or my bookstore in particular? If you’re an author with an online bookstore, have you seen similar results or different ones? Let me know in the comments below!

“Anger is a Map”

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about things I miss from traditional publishing. My intent was to learn from the past: since I’m my own publisher now (and will be for the foreseeable future) I wanted to identify processes and strategies that worked for me in the past, so I could find ways to incorporate them into my current method of publishing. The bad side of traditional publishing gets a lot of airtime, but I wanted to examine the other side of the coin. The post was picked up by other blogs, and appeared to strike a nerve for many writers. The comments here were thoughtful, but elsewhere, I was surprised by the vehemence of the replies.

There is clearly a lot of anger in the writing community.

What difference could it possibly make to another writer that I believe there were some good things in my experiences with traditional publishing? The most I expected was that someone might say “hmm, yes, that is a good idea” or “no, that never worked for me.” I suspect this anger has a different root, and that my post was simply a convenient target.

So, today, let’s talk about anger.

It’s easy to become angry when published traditionally. The marriage between commerce and creativity is a notoriously uneasy one, regardless of media. The publishing industry in particular is structured so that authors have very little power or say in the production choices (or even the editorial choices) made for their books. Coupled with that lack of control is a perceived answerability—readers often believe that authors are responsible for everything about their books. Even if the reader knows that authors don’t choose the cover or the print distribution pattern or whatever, the author is the most visible and accessible point of contact, particularly with the popularity of social media. Answering for something you didn’t choose or can’t fix is a toxic combination, though, and one that can certainly incite fury.

The thing with anger is that it’s stifling. Whenever I’m fuming over something my publisher has done or not done, I can’t write. Since I write for a living, this is a problem. The first time I was caught in this situation was in 1995. There were a lot of things going on with my publisher then and I’m not even sure now which incident pushed me over the edge. I felt betrayed and angry—and worse, I wasn’t writing. I knew I had to fix that. The rent had to be paid.

I discovered Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, that year and did the exercises for the first time. Chapter Three remains a powerful one for me, and here’s a quote from it:

“Anger is fuel. We feel it and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit, smash a fist into the wall, tell those bastards. But we are nice people and what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it, lie about it, medicate it, muffle it, ignore it. We do everything but listen to it.

Anger is meant to be listened to. Anger is a voice, a shout, a plea, a demand. Anger is meant to be respected. Why? Because anger is a map. Anger shows us what our boundaries are. Anger shows us where we want to go. It lets us see where we’ve been and lets us know when we haven’t liked it. Anger points the way, not just the finger…

Anger is our friend. Not a nice friend. Not a gentle friend. But a very, very loyal friend. It will always tell us when we have been betrayed. It will always tell us when we have betrayed ourselves. It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.

Anger is not the action itself. It is action’s invitation.”

This chapter and its exercises were transformative for me. I chose to listen to my anger. I explored other publishing opportunities, including self-publishing – know as “vanity publishing” at the time. It was print based then, requiring an investment I didn’t have, storage of print books and the hand-selling of those books. I didn’t have the cash, the storage space or the talent for hand-selling my work, so it wasn’t for me. Small presses tend not to acquire genre fiction, especially romance, which I write, so that wasn’t viable either. All paths led back to traditional publishing—or a career change. I was determined to make writing my career.

I couldn’t change the terms of my signed contract, and I couldn’t affect how my publisher did business. I had no luck getting an agent in those days, so there was no industry ally to help me. I couldn’t change the rules of the game, but I could play it better. I wrote a number of proposals, polished them and strove to make them as marketable in my niche as possible. I sent one as my option to the house, and marked my calendar with the last date of the house’s contractual period to consider the work exclusively. When that date passed without a whisper, I sent the work out to other houses, as was my contractual right. I had sufficient interest in the work that by the time the house got around to making an offer on my option—an infuriating offer, btw—I was sufficiently confident of the proposal’s future to decline it. Two days later, that proposal sold to a Big 6 house. The first book in that series was my first book to hit the USA Today bestseller list and gave me the credential I needed to hire a good agent. Using my anger as a map helped me to change my situation for the better, even when there were few choices available. I used my anger as a map repeatedly in my career, perhaps most significantly in 2012 when I chose to walk away from traditional publishing.

As writers, we are fortunate to be publishing in a time of opportunity. Instead of being committed to following a single path to publication—i.e. through traditional publishers—we can select the route that suits us, or the work, best. This is tremendously liberating. I know writers who have built their careers in indie publishing, writers who began in traditional publishing and have remained there, writers working with small presses, writers publishing with digital-first publishers, and “hybrid” writers who work with some combination of the above. I know writers who have moved from one way of publishing their work to another. This is going to continue as more choices become available. The growing array of possibilities is exciting—but what is more exciting is that each writer can create a publishing solution that best suits his or her work. We can choose the best format for a work, a series, an author brand, or the ideal path for a particular point in our career.

I don’t feel angry that other authors make different choices than I do. On the contrary, I’m excited. And nothing my former houses do or don’t do has the ability to make me as angry as once it did. They haven’t changed, but my situation has: I have both control and responsibility, which is a much less stressful combination. I am a far happier writer these days, and a more prolific one.

What about you? Have you successfully used your anger as a map?


I’ve been struck lately by how prolific many indie authors are. That, in turn, makes me think about changing expectations from readers and publishers.

Let’s start off with the publication schedule. There are authors who publish works monthly, even biweekly, which is a truly amazing feat. In an ideal universe, the next work in a series would be available to a reader as soon as he or she finished reading the current work. In the past, this meant having the next book available for pre-order, but now it’s often for sale. This rapid publication might be ideal, but there are few authors who can write as fast as readers can read – but many are getting closer.

Once upon a time, it was believed that authors should have a new book published once a year, or at most, once every 8 months. This was believed to be the way to build audience among readers, and was the prevailing wisdom when I sold my first book in 1992. The issue with this is that it’s very hard to make a living in traditional publishing with only one genre fiction release per year. Publishers, though, were convinced that more frequent publication would mean that the author “cannibalized” his or her own sales. (Really. That was the verb of choice.)

In series romance, however, it was possible to have more frequent publication, which was one of the reasons I was glad to sell first to Harlequin. Harlequin and Silhouette authors might get two or even three publication slots per year. I was considered a prolific writer in those days, being capable of writing three to four books a year. And I was the first Harlequin Historical author to be given four slots in one year. That was in 1994 and it was considered to be radical. (I suspect, actually, that they had some issues with empty slots in the publication schedule: my books were delivered early and there, so I got lucky.)

Even then, authors like Nora Roberts were beginning to prove that more frequent publication did not diminish sales. Fans could read faster than authors could write, and having more books available faster meant building sales. It seems so self-evident now, but it required a big change in the thinking at publishing houses for authors to be given more frequent publication slots. Many authors wrote under two names, so that they could have more books published. When I moved to Dell, they scheduled the Bride Quest trilogy at six month intervals, which was considered audacious. It worked. Roughly ten years later, NAL used the same six-month-publication strategy for the initial three Dragonfire books, and it was still considered to be a bold sign of support from the house.

There were authors who had back-to-back release schedules in that era, with each book in a trilogy published in consecutive months. April, May and June, for example. There was mixed thinking about the success of this: one reason for skepticism is that readers often stash print books in their TBR pile, so might not read book #1 before book #2 was available for sale. (This happens in digital, too.) The other issue is that the rapid publication comes at a cost – the books were still produced at a rate of 2 per year, so clustering three together for publication often meant a big gap in the author’s publication schedule both before and after that promotional push. On the other side of the argument, though, some readers won’t buy a trilogy until all three books are available. This is a newer wrinkle, and the result of pubilshers pulling the plug on linked series, and never publishing the completion of the series.

But then there is digital. In the digital market, where indie authors don’t have any publisher to control their release schedule, many are publishing very very quickly. There are two variables at work here—one is how quickly these authors write, but the other influencing variable is that many write shorter works than tend to be published in traditional print publishing. In traditional publishing, the 100,000 word mass market paperback is the standard. In digital, a work can be any size, and actually, pricing skews very well for 25,000 word novellas. Some authors can write novellas at double or triple the rate of writing books, while others take the same amount of time to write a story no matter how long the finished work is.

Also, in this new world of digital books and online book portals, frequent publication is one very good way to build sales and visibility. So, these very prolific authors are becoming terrific success stories, because they’re listening to readers and publishing new works very frequently. I do find it rather funny to be considered a slow-poke now, with my 3-to-4-books-a-year writing speed, after being called prolific (and maybe even TOO prolific LOL) for so long, but there’s the reality of the new market.

How does this reality change my future plans? Well, I’m still working that out. It’s possible that I will write more novellas and shorter works in the year ahead, and structure new projects to be linked novellas instead of linked books. It’s possible that I’ll just carry on with linked full-length books and have four releases per year. (I do like how big and chewy a 100K book can be.) It’s likely that I’ll mix it up. 🙂 But the change in the marketplace certainly bears some consideration.

How about you? Have your reading habits changed? Do you like to read books by a single author in succession, or do you prefer to alternate between favourites? Do you think you read more than before? Faster than before?

An Ode to Print Books

I recently bought a handmade blank book from a local artist, who uses Japanese papers to create one-of-a-kind journals. They are just beautiful and bring together many of the elements I love about print books.

And that got me to thinking. We’re a day early for Wild West Thursday, but let’s talk about print books and why (if) we love them. I adore print books. I always have. And now that they’re diminishing in numbers and availability, I have to hope that they’re not facing extinction. I love print books so much that I can’t imagine reading only in a digital format. I also love print books enough that I am aware of the limitations of print-on-demand technology.

Let’s talk about why.

First off, there’s the tactile experience of a physical book. I love the smell of print books. The glue from the binding has a particular scent, as does the paper. I love the sound a hardcover book makes when it’s cracked open the first time, and the feel of a cover under my fingertips. I love matte paper covers on trade paperbacks, foil stamping and raised type, gloss varnish images that you only see when you hold the book at the right angle. I love rag edges on the pages of hard cover books, marbled end papers (or illustrated end papers), leather covers with tooling and gold embossing. The paper can be smooth or have more tooth; it can be creamy or it can be stark white; it can be trimmed with precision or have rag edges. There’s something magical about a book that needs to have its galleys carefully cut open with a knife before it can be read, like it has secrets to reveal only to you. I love all those printing and production tricks that make print books into tactile treasure chests. Some people call this “book as object” or “book as treasure”. The physical book in itself is a prize.

Possibly because I learned to read print books, I associate all of those physical clues with the thrill of discovering a new story. We had the entire set of My Book House when I was a kid, a twelve volume hard cover collection of children’s stories that become progressively more advanced with each addition. (I still have them.) I remember opening those books to read—or be read to—and the thrill of moving on to the next volume in the series very well. Holding a print book in my hands gives me a sense of anticipation, an awareness that I’m about to embark on an adventure.

I also love illustrations in books. These tend to be few and far between in digital books. My Book House had wonderful line drawings, and perhaps my affection for them came from that. The illustrations were well chosen to highlight the story in question and often took the imagination in new paths, or brought some previously-unnoticed element of the story to the fore. Sometimes poems were typeset to flow around the illustration or echo its composition, which looked like magic to me. I recently read a new book (in print) that had title pages for each section with line drawings, and they made the book so beautiful that I wanted to put it on the shelf and keep it forever. (I did.) I love drop caps and illuminated caps, the kind that you see in fairy tales. Those illuminated caps often have an entire story hidden within them, or they hint at one. When I began to study medieval stories, I was enchanted by the illustrations in the margins and caps of those old manuscripts, probably the forebears of illuminated caps. I also appreciate when someone takes the time to choose the perfect symbol or dingbat to use as a scene break or chapter break. That’s another illustration, another way to explore the core ideas of the book in images. These little touches take a specific title beyond the ordinary.

I’m not sure whether I was a typesetter because I loved the way type could convey mood (maybe it was those poems flowing around the illustrations!), or whether I learned more about type conveying mood because I set type for a while. Fonts in themselves are evocative, and the composition of the page in a print book gives the reader a powerful impression even before he or she begins to read. Most people don’t think about type, or white space, or the density of the lines, but all of those variables and more can combine together to enhance the experience of the book. Most mass market paperbacks aren’t designed, per se, but the copy is pushed through a template, maybe with some tweaks. It was in my trade paperback editions that I saw the art of book designers—trade is considered a “boutique” product in traditional publishing, so it gets more attention from the production side of the house. Doubtless hard cover does, too. (Although large print hard covers would be an exception to that.)

Digital books give the end user the flexibility of setting the font, color and size of the type, much like a website does (and EPUB is really a variant of HTML). That means that the art of the book designer is irrelevant. If you compare the layout of a digital book “page” on your e-reader with the page of a well-designed print book, you’ll see what I mean. The e-reader gets the job done. You can read the story. It’s functional, but it’s probably not beautiful.

And this all makes me wonder about the future or not just books but interior design of books. Will print books go away? Will digital books integrate some of these elements in the future? I can’t see the user control of font going away, but maybe we’ll get more illustrations or just better dingbats. Maybe there will be a default to the layout—”author’s choice” or something—that incorporates these elements but which the user can over-ride.

One thing I intend to do is think more seriously about my print-on-demand editions in future. It may be possible to add line drawings or other elements into those books to make them richer and move them beyond functionality.

What do you think? Do you love print books? Or do you prefer digital books? Tell me your preference and your reasons for it.

The New Shape of Fiction

Here we are back at Wild West Thursday again. I think I told you that I was taking an online course called The Future of Storytelling. It was interesting in many ways, and in combination with my ruminations on the changing face of digital publishing, I’ve been thinking about the new shape of fiction.

If you think about it, many of us have been approaching the medium of digital books with a lot of old assumptions. Part of this has been because many authors (like me) have had a lot of backlist book rights in our pockets, and have entered the digital book market by making those books available in new editions. Some of us have also been completing series that are partially done – like Abyss in my Prometheus Project, my new True Love Brides Series which picks up from the Jewels of Kinfairlie Series, and my completing Dragonfire. These new books follow the format of the older titles.

The vast majority of my backlist titles are romance novels of 100,000 words in length. Some of them are in linked series, but they all stand alone. Some of them have author’s notes. I’ve added new reader letters to most of them. they have back cover copy and tag lines on the covers, as well as review quotes on the covers. In short, they resemble their print predecessors in many ways. They differ from their print predecessors in having hotlinks in the end matter, in having two excerpts at the end instead of just one, and in providing links to my social media. They also have a linked table of contents in the digital edition. In essence, though, they are updated versions of the original mass market editions.

Why are mass market novels 100,000 words in length? Is that a natural length for stories? I don’t think so. I’m not convinced that stories have a natural length, or certainly not that all stories should be of one particular length. A 100,000 word book manuscript prints up in mass market format to about 350 pages. It makes a nice size and heft. It’s economically feasible to produce a book of this size and length and price it at $7 or $8. Series romances are often shorter because the production cost of the individual book needs to be lower, in order to make a lower price point work better. Series books are often sold by subscription. Subscription copies are mailed to the consumer, which makes weight of an individual book (or of a group of them) a consideration. The production realities of the format have shaped our expectation of the shape of fiction.

But what are the production realities of digital books? Length isn’t a concern. In terms of pure text, a 200,000 word novel isn’t significantly more unwieldy than a 100,000 word book (especially if it has a table of contents). In fact, even shorter lengths can be as satisfactory to the reader. What length will digital books be, if and when we stop emulating the mass market format?

Serialized stories have been published for a long time. In the 19th century it was common for fiction to be publishing in weekly magazines. For space constraints, a story would be published in these weeklies one chapter at a time. Many 19th century novelists – like Dickens, Dumas, Balzac, etc. – originally published their books as serializations. Serials were also popular in other formats: in the early days of movies, the next installment of one or more ongoing serials was played before the feature film. This was a marketing trick to ensure that people came every week to the movies. Similarly, serials were used by radio networks, to keep people tuning in on a regular basis. Television series veered away from serials – opting instead for installments in long running shows that could be watched out of order – until recently. Many long running shows now feature an incremental story (like the solving of a crime) on each show, but the development of the continuing characters’ stories arcs over the series (or season) and needs to be watched in order.

Serials are a format that works well for some authors of digital books, and works better than it does in print. Installments can be shorter. They can be priced more aggressively. Having multiple releases can create more promotional opportunities for the author. When the story is complete, the chapters or installments can be gathered into an omnibus edition. A serial can ensure that the reader comes back – to the portal, to the author homepage, to the author blog, to wherever the story originates – on a regular basis. These stories aren’t constricted by length as they might be in print format: the entire story can be very long, which isn’t an issue in digital.

Additional content is also a viable option for inclusion in digital books. I love maps. I draw maps for the locations of most of my books. But convincing an editor to include a map in the print edition of a romance is just about as easy as convincing him or her to give up both kidneys. There is a perception that romances don’t need additional materials, so the addition of that single page will be fought on every front. (I’m hoping that romantic suspense is different.) In digital books, though, the addition of content isn’t a concern. The incremental change in the file size just doesn’t matter. Even better, not all additional content is image-based, which tends to take more space. I’ve added casts of characters to my indie-published books, and a glossary of terms to the newest Dragonfire title. Neither of these additions would have been made in mass market additions, because of the additional pages required. I’ve also included two excerpts in the back of my digital books, one from the obvious choice (the linked book) which would have been included by a traditional publisher, and one from another title in my list (which wouldn’t have made the cut.) I also can include longer excerpts, because space is not a concern. This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of additional content. I foresee authors adding a great deal more to their books.

Increased navigability is another possibility for digital books. Currently, digital books tend to follow the formatting of print books. If there’s a glossary of terms, for example, it will appear at the end or the beginning of the digital book. The one big change is a linked table of contents in the digital book. But what if the words in the glossary were hotlinked in the text of the book – at least in their first usage – and the hotlink took you to the definition in the glossary? Maybe the definition would appear in a pop up window. Last summer at RWA National, the guy from Apple talked about using this kind of technique on buy links – using the right command and the iTunes buy link would bring up the iTunes product page in a pop-up window, allowing the customer to buy the book without losing his or her place in the current book. This is kind of like footnotes in print, but a lot slicker. Similarly, a map or a genealogical chart could be tied to the book’s content so the first time a location or a character is mentioned, the reader could quickly determine where or who that was. Another example: in Guardian, there is an APB put out on Delilah. It appears in the text as a digital message. In the original version of the book, it said <image> at the top, as a placeholder for a picture of Delilah that would have appeared in the APB. There was no way to put a picture in the text. In this new edition, the formatter tucked a black and white jpeg of Delilah into that place, an image created from the cover. This enriches the experience of the book and the immersion into its world, for just 20K (or less) addition to the overall file size.

These are just a few thoughts that come to my mind when I think about the future shape of fiction. How do expect fiction to change in the future – or do you?

Chicken Little and the Digital Book Market

This is the first Wild West Thursday post on my new blog. The old ones are still over at Alive & Knitting if you want to catch up on the discussion.

Remember Chicken Little? He was the one who ran around, certain that the sky was falling. (Turns out that this is a very old story about mass hysteria and its effects. Twenty-five centuries!) There has been a lot of chatter on author loops lately (well, on one loop in particular) about 99-cent boxed sets and how their prevalence is affecting the market for books. The notion here is that 99-cent boxed sets are destroying the market, because readers will become so accustomed to getting books cheap that they’ll stop paying for them at all. This is clearly a trend with huge implications for authors.

Or it would be, if it were true.

Spending time in the publishing industry means becoming familiar with its tropes and patterns. The fact is that there is always something or someone destroying the book market, at least if you believe what you read in the industry trades – yet the book market keeps on keeping on. This year, the guilty party might be seen to be 99-cent digital boxed sets. Last year, it was free digital books. In the years before that, it was self-published authors flooding the marketplace with unedited books. Before that, it was Amazon, or maybe Wal-mart, or big box stores, or other retailers whose roots weren’t in the business of selling books. For as long as I’ve been a published author (and probably before that), there’s been a big bad wolf out there (there I go, mixing my metaphors and folk tales!) gobbling up all the opportunity for writers and publishers to make a decent living.

What people are responding to here is change. Change is frightening. Change makes us angry. Chicken Little had his claw on a fundamental human trait.

The thing that’s not changing here is that there are readers who want to read books for free. This has always been the case. It could be that they believe books should be free. It could be that they’re avid readers and price becomes a concern when you consume a lot of any product. It could just be that they’re frugal. My point is simply that these readers have always been around and that’s just fine. Some are librarians. Some are enthusiasts who press books on other people. It’s not by any means a one-sided transaction or a simple issue. In the old days of print books, those readers went to libraries, used book stores, church sales and bought stripped books at flea markets. Their presence isn’t new. They might have e-readers now, but their tendencies are exactly the same as ever.

What is changing is the digital book market. It’s evolving rapidly, which is interesting in itself, and this year, there have been some very big changes. I believe that the market is maturing, which means that the traits that have characterized the digital book market for the last few years weren’t new standards but anomalies. Any changes in the market for popular fiction will be felt first and most strongly by those of us who write genre fiction.

Let’s look at a few big recent trends:
• a diminished market power of backlist
One very strange trait of the digital book market has been that backlist titles have dominated book sales so emphatically. It wasn’t uncommon for an author to have a backlist title that sold at consistently high levels for a long period of time. This isn’t characteristic of the book market as a whole. There are two big contributing factors here, one from supply and one from demand. On the supply side, many authors held reverted book rights and entered the digital book market themselves by creating new editions of those backlist titles. On the demand side, many readers were buying e-readers for the first time. What we tend to do when we commit to new technology is that we acquire our favorite content in the new format. It happened when music became available on CD’s. It happened when books became digital. That’s a finite curve, though – everyone has a list of older titles they want to have on the new device, and once they’ve bought that list, they will turn to new content. I suspect that the 99-cent digital boxed set (many of which are compiled of backlist titles) is the last hurrah of backlist books.

• more controls and filters by digital book portals
As algorithms become more sophisticated – which they do day by day – and digital portals filter against explicit content, it becomes less easy for authors to “game the system” – that’s Mark LeFebvre’s phase – or to use little tricks to propel a book into prominence. Not only is there a lot of more content available, but loopholes are being closed. This shifts the format to success back to the old combination of good content at a good price published on a consistent schedule.

• sexually explicit content is no longer an easy sell
There was a time – oh, until about March of 2013 – that it was comparatively easy to make a lot of money writing erotic romance and erotica. There was no need for promotion or advertising. Making the content available was enough. In a way, it seemed that digital book readers were hungry for this kind of content. Maybe that was the case, as much of it was edgy and might not have been published in a traditional market. But a lot of sorting has been added this year by digital book portals, particularly to niche sexually explicit content, probably to ensure that they aren’t found to be trafficking in pornography. It might also be because they want to ensure that such content is visible only to adults, not minors. This filtering echoes the decisions that used to be made by traditional publishers. It’s a lot harder to make big money selling explicit content online than it was even 10 months ago. It can still be done, but just the fact that it’s not simple will compel a number of authors to stop publishing.

• big publishers are learning better how to sell digital books
Finally! This not only provides more competition for books on a title by title basis, but it influences the options for self-published authors at a higher level. Big publishers make better partners in many cases for digital portals than individual authors ever could—such publishers control larger lists of titles and have more budget to spend on promotion. This means that the portals will likely skew their algorithms to be more favorable to digital books from traditional publishers – which means less visibility for indie-published books.

In the end, the digital book market looks more and more like the traditional book market every day. Earlier this year, I compared the sales patterns for two digital boxed sets of my medieval romances: one published by me and the other published by Random House. The sales curves were radically different, but given the lag in reporting times, I used sales numbers for the second half of 2012. By the time I wrote those posts in May 2013, the patterns were already changing. My next royalty report showed sales for the first half of 2013 as being very similar: the self-published boxed set was selling in a pattern very similar to the traditionally published boxed set.

What we’re seeing is that the sales anomalies that indie-published writers came to believe were typical of the digital market are disappearing. Just as in traditional publishing, a single book is increasingly unlikely to sell at the same high volume for a sustained period of time. Just as in traditional publishing, many many books will see a sales spike at or around their on sale date, then a drop in sales, and smaller spikes with the release of new frontlist titles by the same author. As indie authors are given the option of setting books up for pre-orders, this pattern is going to become even more pronounced.

There remain some differences, however, and they’re important ones. Digital publishing does still offer the opportunity for books to be “discovered” long after their on sale date and be catapulted into visibility. In such a crowded market, that may be a less frequent occurrence than was once the case. One excellent trait of the digital book market is that backlist is readily available for readers to discover a linked series that is already in progress. Another thing I really like about the digital book market is the immediacy of publication – it would be hard for me to go back to a one year production cycle, after the writing of a book is complete. In a changing market, I like the ability to make my work available sooner.

What do you think about the changes in the digital book market? Do you see 99-cent boxed sets as a sign of the end of the world? Did I miss any trends or changes that you see as influential? How about any advantages of the digital book market?

The New Curators

I’ve been talking about the explosion of new content in the book market and how it affects reading, as well as how this market differs from the book market of the past. To catch up on the discussion, you might want to check out the first post, Reconsidering Gatekeepers, and the second post, Curating Books. As you’ll see today, I have no absolute answers – maybe no firm answers at all! – but lots of interesting questions.

Who will curate the future book market?

Maybe you think the book market shouldn’t be curated at all, but that the widest array of titles possible is the best choice for readers and writers alike.

Maybe you believe that the market will decide which books succeed and which books don’t in a crowded marketplace. In a way, that’s always been the case and remains so – the difference in this market is the magnitude of the problem of discoverability. How does a book become visible to enough readers to get its shot at success? That could prompt an entirely new series of discussions. In a market with as many available titles as ours, the vast majority of books are languishing in obscurity – if they aren’t read, then they aren’t being curated, rated, reviewed, or given their chance to find an audience.

(I’m not going to talk about advertising, because the only qualifier for an ad for any book to exist is someone to pay the price of the ad. There’s no curatorial process happening there. It’s a cash transaction. And I believe that when we as readers see ads for books (whether they’re on billboards, buses, online portals or in email newsletters) we self-curate, and decide immediately whether we are interested in the book or not. The mechanism at work is not curation, although certainly advertising may make a book more visible and draw it out of obscurity.)

I think there will be curators, whether we individually want them or not. A large unsorted mass of titles invites someone (anyone) to wade in and make sense of it all for the rest of us. What’s different about this market is how curators can be chosen – there are no default curators, who get the job automatically because of their role in the publishing process.

Let’s talk about that a bit more.

Agents and editors have traditionally been the curators of the book market. They will continue to curate as they have done before – except that they will curate a much smaller segment of the total book market than has ever been the case. That means that the range of their influence is shrinking. How much? It’s hard to know for sure, and such stats are always reliant upon how the terms are defined. I’d guess (and this is a ballpark impression) that agents and editors involved in traditional publishing are curating a single digit percentage of all books currently available to readers. Maybe 1% or less – but remember that the vast majority of self-published titles don’t sell at all. There is just so much content out there. It’s hard to even get a raw sense of how much content is out there.

If we look in terms of revenue – or the books that are actually selling – I’ll guess that agents and editors are directly curating 30 – 50% of the book market, in terms of revenue. That’s going to fluctuate within different niches and different territories. Interestingly, they might be indirectly influencing another increment of the market – maybe 20% – by having taught authors who used to be traditionally published how curation is done. Let’s talk about that next.

Authors are the next obvious choice of curators for books, at least for their own books. Do authors curate their own work? Can they dispassionately assess the merit of competing ideas, when those ideas are their own? I think some authors are better at this than others, but I suspect that many authors are good at choosing the most currently marketable idea from an array of options, even when those are their own ideas. They might not be choosing the idea that contributes to the cultural landscape or advances their creative career – they might choose instead to mark time and repeat successes. They might take big risks or no risks, but on some level, I believe that most authors are doing some curation of their own work. The authors who are best at this might very well be the ones who have industry experience – authors like me have watched our own books be curated so many times that we can understand the process. Maybe we even see the point of it. Maybe we curate our ideas on purpose, or maybe it’s a learned response – to increase the chances of making a deal, for example – but this is where the influence of editors and agents casts its shadow. A great many authors doing well in digital self-publishing have traditional publishing experience. How much that experience is influencing their choices will depend upon the individual author.

(The intriguing question for me is whether editors and agents were right in their curatorial decisions. I mentioned this last week – in recent years, there’s been a trend to be very cautious (or even lazy) curatorially, to insist upon an author repeating successes and remaining in place, as well as a determination to not diversify author brands because that’s perceived to be risky. I’m noticing areas where the market (i.e. readers) reinforce those decisions and where the market challenges them. There’s another sequence of discussions that can hang upon those questions so let’s leave it there for today.)

Portals are a curator that most people don’t expect to be active, but that’s not been the case. In the past two years, we have seen multiple instances in which the digital sales portal (or publishing platform) has curated the list of books for sale on its web site. This decision tends to revolve around the inclusion of explicit sexual content. Many of these portals have few restrictions about content in their Terms of Service agreement, so there is a line between intellectual freedom and trafficking in pornography. Without curators, some really racy stuff becomes available. Many of these portals are interested in marketing content to minors, so managing the visibility of such content (or even its inclusion) can become an issue. The first instance I noticed was the situation between Paypal and Smashwords about explicit content, then Amazon changed the presentation and visibility of erotic and explicit content last March. Around the same time, Apple added a longer review process for erotic content, and most recently Kobo delisted everything in order to sort out explicit content for one of their portals, WHSmith. The challenge, of course, is that we’re in a market in which sexually explicit content sells very well – no one wants to kill the golden goose, but at the same time, there’s a balance to be struck. That balance will be defined by each portal, probably on an ongoing basis.

Reviewers were once much more powerful than they are now. There were fewer reviewers and fewer reputable review publications, so reviews in the big review organs like NYT, Booklist, PW etc., or even a genre-specific magazine like RT were far from guaranteed for each title. Books had to compete for the opportunity to be reviewed, so even the chance of a review was curated. There was a persistent idea that those books which made the cut had already been designated for great things – certainly there was a whiff that reviews were not always impartial or objective. The reviews that were published helped readers and booksellers to curate new titles. Book bloggers changed the landscape radically in this niche, because – unlike traditional reviewing – there is no barrier to entry to blogging. Anybody can set up a blog and review books. Bloggers were outside of the publishing industry so they were often brutally honest, which gave them credibility with readers – we really saw the influence of these reviewers in the emerging YA market. That came full circle when publicity departments at big publishers actively cultivated such bloggers and sent them free books in the hopes of good reviews. This devolved again in recent years to individual readers reviewing books, with or without maintaining a book blog.

Readers are the ultimate curators, of course. The question is how readers will make sense of such an enormous array of options – or whether they will. What’s interesting is the evolution of tools for individual readers to make recommendations of books. We love to have trusted book curators (i.e. readers whose tastes echo our own) recommend reads to us. Once upon a time, this happened at the bookstore, if you were so lucky to have a bookstore with an employee or owner who read avidly in your genre of choice.

The thing is that once you had validated a curator’s taste against your own – yours might exactly coincide, vary in certain niches, or always oppose the curator’s suggestions – you could use that person’s comments as a curatorial guide, whether he or she loved or hated an individual book. This is something writers often forget when they see bad reviews on their books. A bad review is as valuable as a good one, as it still provides curatorial data for other readers. We used to get a newspaper and I read the arts reviews: if their Theatre reviewer loved a play, I knew I would, too, and we’d go to see it. The Movie reviewer, OTOH, hated everything I loved and loved everything I hated. I went to see the movies he despised and avoided the ones he raved about.

How do we use the same mechanism of validated referrals in our current market?

• Portals promote this kind of discussion by encouraging reader-customers to rank and review the books they’ve read. Amazon even offers discussion boards for readers. The change here that’s important for our discussion of curation was the necessity of readers creating an identity or account, which would be used for all of their reviews. This means that a reader can discover that she agrees with Minneapolis57‘s review of a specific title, then can read all of Minneapolis57‘s other reviews to find new reads. The reviewer Minneapolis57, who is a reader and a customer, effectively becomes a curator, for at least one other reader. There’s even less barrier to entry than for a book blogger.

• Further along that line, social media sites for readers like Goodreads encourage readers to curate their own bookshelves, then allow other readers to browse those shelves. You can find a reader whose taste echoes your own (and he or she can be anywhere in the world), become friends and recommend books to each other.

• Book clubs, both real and virtual, are another way for readers to connect, curate and recommend books to each other. Goodreads hosts a number of online bookclubs with monthly reading selections, for example, or you might have a book club that meets physically in your neighborhood.

• Portals also curate for reader/customers by analyzing each customer’s previous sales data. Amazon’s algorithm is the most sophisticated in this arena, although all online portals try to replicate the bookseller’s advice “if you liked A, you’ll like B.” Not only will customers of a portal receive periodic emails advertising Books You Might Like, but the display presented to the customer when surfing on the portal itself will put that customer’s sales history to work. You might see a side banner or pop up window Recommended For You, or you might be reminded of what books you looked at most recently (but didn’t buy). You might see Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought These Titles, or you might be offered a Better Together offer of adding a second linked book at a discounted price. There are dozens of ways for this information to be presented to you by the portal in an effort to curate books to your taste — and convince you to buy more books.

You can see that I think curating is going to happen, whether we specifically plan for it or not. You can also see a steady devolution happening here, the same one that Mr. Math loves to call “the democratization of popular culture”. Instead of being told what we should read – or being presented with a selection of choices deemed to be appropriate reading material – we have an enormous range of options. Further, we’re reliant upon each other to make sense of this vast array of books. In a curious way, the explosion of content and he connection of billions of people makes those individual connections even more important.

Do you review the books you’ve read? Do you use any of these tools or resources to decide what you should read next? What’s the most important way that you find new books or new authors? How is this different from the way you discovered new books and authors ten years ago? Or is it?